The Queen’s Speech opened with promises to "ease the burden" and "grow the economy", but the scale of ambition was not matched by the details of the legislation. Powers for local authorities to fill empty shopping units and revive pavement ‘café culture’ fall short of the transformative change that had been trailed. There was little on tackling the cost of living crisis, although the Queen’s Speech was never likely to be the vehicle for these kind of policy interventions.
Instead this programme set out in the speech feels closer to an appeal to the Conservative base with the proposed Bill of Rights, privatisation of Channel 4 and curbs on protest. There is also the scale of the legislation announced – 38 bills (even if five are in draft), including four carried over from the previous session. It seems unlikely that these can all be delivered in a single year, particularly when the government has run into difficulty getting legislation through parliament despite an 80-seat Commons majority.
Doorstep vox pops running up to last week’s local elections suggested the cost of living crisis is high on many voters’ minds. The Queen’s Speech acknowledged these concerns, saying the government would “strengthen the economy and help ease the cost of living”. But there was nothing in the substance of the bills proposed that will tackle the very immediate pressures on people’s finances.
Households are already feeling the pinch from a sharp rise in energy, fuel and food costs, with a further increase in energy bills expected in October. The economic measures laid out in the Queen’s Speech – such as planning reform, promoting competition, overhauling regulations inherited from the EU, support for infrastructure and better transport, measures to promote energy security, a desire to increase job opportunities – may help to bolster longer-term economic growth. There is a semblance of a prescription for longer-term growth. But they will do essentially nothing to move the dial on households’ finances in the next year or so. Even as a prescription for longer-term growth, the bills proposed do not amount to a compelling, coherent curative for the UK’s long-standing weak productivity growth.
It would have been unusual for a government to lay out details of short-term fiscal support in a Queen’s Speech. Such things are usually announced by the Treasury with little forewarning, in budgets, spring statements – or, increasingly often in recent times, in an ad hoc manner between fiscal statements. But the text of the Queen’s Speech will have raised expectations that the government will “help ease the cost of living”, while doing nothing to deliver on that promise in the near term.
The government’s slogan made an early appearance in the Queen’s Speech as part of the ambition to boost economic growth and level up. The new Levelling Up Bill, which will set the statutory basis for devolution outside city-regions, is welcome progress on the ambitious devolution proposals set out in February’s white paper. This bill will also give local areas a new source of funding through a share of an Infrastructure Levy – though there is still a long way to go to meet the white paper’s promise to simplify local government funding and move away from the large number of competitive pots on which local government currently relies.
But otherwise there was little new policy substance or evidence of bold ideas to help reduce regional inequality. Bills on planning, transport and education could all have an impact on the levelling up agenda but, as Michael Gove recently conceded, the work to tackle regional disparities will only get harder as living standards are squeezed. The fate of levelling up will be inextricably linked to the government’s ability to deal with the cost of living crisis, and with the Queen’s Speech light on new proposals to address this, levelling up risks being subsumed by the government’s larger economic woes.
The government plans a range of bills to take forward “Brexit opportunities” already identified, with planned legislation in areas such as gene-editing, amending some financial services directives, digital market regulation and procurement. It is also proposing to amend the data protection regime the UK inherited from the EU – which could lead in time to the EU reconsidering whether to continue with the data adequacy judgement it gave the UK last year. Tear that up, and cross-border data flows become a whole lot more complicated. There will also be legislation to allow ministers to revise EU law more easily – expect a row over the extent of those powers and the lack of parliamentary scrutiny.
What this does not amount to – so far – is a bonfire of EU red tape nor anything that in the short run will make much difference to the cost pressures on business or households. It certainly comes nowhere close to offsetting the additional red tape Brexit is imposing on any business which exports to the EU or needs to recruit workers from there. Although the speech made reference to protecting the integrity of the UK, and the Good Friday Agreement, we did not see was a firm commitment to legislate to unilaterally override parts of the Northern Ireland protocol, despite the rumours. But that does not mean the issue has gone away, with reports suggesting that there may be a further announcement from the foreign secretary on a new bill next week.
Across public services, the government’s plans pale in comparison to the scale of the challenges faced. The Queen’s Speech largely reheats existing announcements to provide additional funding to the NHS and reform social care, so although the funding provided is substantial waiting lists in the NHS will remain at record levels for the foreseeable future and the social care plans won’t fix the problems in the current system.
The schools bill would implement the underwhelming white paper published earlier in the year. While this includes low-key, if useful reforms, these will not be nearly enough to meet the government’s unrealistically ambitious mission to level up education.
The speech also includes a number of bills intended to cut crime and make the streets safer. However, none address the biggest barrier to making the justice system work effectively: the huge backlog of cases that have built up in the criminal courts. The government’s courts recovery plan will help, but major improvement will be difficult without addressing the considerable workforce problems in the judiciary and legal profession.
The much delayed Procurement Bill is intended to simplify the rules around public sector buying, now that the UK can diverge from EU regulations. With Jacob Rees-Mogg recently taking on ministerial responsibility for procurement, the government appears to have dropped its previous interest in social value and transparency, both of which featured heavily in the procurement green paper.